CSIRO’s lunar testbed – the In-situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) Facility – includes materials simulating the fine and abrasive lunar regolith covering the top five to ten metres of the moon’s surface, and provides a realistic environment for evaluating rovers and other equipment destined for the moon.
The ISRU facility includes a large, sealed room housing hundreds of kilograms of different types of artificial lunar regolith in a custom-made enclosure that can be reconfigured to safely conduct different evaluation activities.
ISRU’s mission control room can remotely monitor and control equipment, and there are also dedicated enclosures and instruments to test dust properties and effects.
The facility sits within the Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies (QCAT), adjacent to mining, automation and AI experts, giving researchers access to QCAT’s ‘robotics playground’ – which provides a unique combination of facilities for developing planetary space technologies in controlled, realistic evaluation environments.
“CSIRO is involved in research in the areas of space activity that line up with the national civil space priorities outlined by the Australian Space Agency,” says Dr Clayfield.
These priority areas include small satellite technologies, Earth observation, space communications and tracking, advanced materials, robotics and remote operations and space life sciences.
“We’re applying the opportunities of space to solve our greatest national challenges and to stimulate new cutting-edge innovations with the potential to generate significant societal benefits, commercial opportunities, and to help transform the Australian space sector,” she says.
“Now we can also offer Australia’s wider space community access to this new lunar testbed facility to help them with their research and development.”
The new Space Race
Just twelve people have walked on the surface of the moon, none of them since the US Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
And for those previous moon-walking astronauts, lunar dust was a big problem that affected their breathing, reduced visibility and damaged equipment and space suits.
More than fifty years after humans first set foot on the moon, we remain a long way from establishing a permanent base there.
But the space sector has hotted up in recent years, with governments and private industry worldwide investing hugely in space-focused research and technology.
Examples include China’s robotic Chang’e 5 mission, returning to earth in December 2020 with the first lunar rock samples collected in over 40 years; and the US-led Artemis program, which plans to land two astronauts on the moon’s surface in 2025 for a week, and to establish a permanent base camp to support longer surface expeditions and a serve as a jump-off point for Mars exploration.
Australia’s commercial space industry has been running for over thirty years, and the national peak body, the Space Industry Association of Australia now lists over 650 space-related organisations in Australia developing a wide range of products and services ranging from sensors to launch vehicles.
The Australian Space Agency, formed in July 2018, coordinates civil space matters across the Australian Government and supports the growth and transformation of Australia’s space industry, while CSIRO plays a major role in our national space research efforts.
“As Australia's national science agency, CSIRO provides national research facilities – and CSIRO’s lunar testbed facility will be accessible to the wider space community in Australia and beyond,” says Dr Clayfield.
“It will join CSIRO’s other space-related facilities including the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (operated on behalf of NASA to track spacecraft in deep space), ), and our share in the Earth observation satellite NovaSAR-1” Dr Clayfield says.
Living off the Land
Interestingly, lunar regolith is at once a challenge and a potential resource for future moon missions.
“In-situ Resource Utilisation is a system we can deploy on a planet or moon to harness resources to allow us to live off the land,” says CSIRO’s ISRU Project Leader Dr Jonathon Ralston, a senior principal research scientist who has a long history in remote sensing and automated mining technology.
“The ISRU test lab will allow us to conceive and develop new components that are critical to build an effective system for in-situ resource utilisation.”
Transporting materials to the moon is complex and hugely expensive, Dr Ralston says – currently costing around USD $1 million per kilogram. “There’s no infrastructure there, so you must take with you the components for everything you want to do,” he says.
The big promise of in-situ resource utilisation is based on identifying raw materials discovered on the planet’s surface and then converting them into much needed items such as oxygen and water for life support, fuel for launch platforms, and materials to assist with essential construction activities.
“Our ultimate aim is to develop a mobile science station that can operate autonomously or remotely on the surface of the moon, and that progressively identifies mission-critical resources and consumables, then creates those by physically converting the materials found in the environment,” he says.
Dr Ralston says systems and processes established by the mining and resource sector over decades will inform much of this work, which would ideally operate as an automated, closed-loop system.
“The first step, the discovery phase, involves sensing to map the available resources. Then we would interpret the information, identifying what to extract,” he says. “Then the excavation stage, including filtering and storing waste, and finally processing the materials to achieve our output.”
In April 2021, a demonstration by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover pioneered in-situ resource utilisation, extracting oxygen from the high-CO2 atmosphere of Mars.
“This is complicated technology – with many components yet to be created – so it’s critical to do as much testing on the ground, so that when we do take technology to the surface of the Moon or Mars, it's going to work.”
Lunar regolith could be one of the greatest challenges for moon missions. The tiny particles of the fine lunar dust have sharp jagged edges, and the dust is statically charged due to the dryness of the moon and the radiation bombardment, so it sticks to everything
“For anyone trying to set up equipment for a lunar outpost, managing the dust will be a massive issue. For example, it may intrude into seals and air locks, it is incredibly abrasive and it is easily disturbed, flying up in the low gravity and coating everything, from solar panels to spacesuits,” Dr Ralston says.
CSIRO’s ISRU facility includes several ‘types’ of lunar regolith that appear at different sites on the moon and which can be used to test equipment and address vulnerabilities before the launch.
Scientists are also working to characterise different properties of dust and looking at ways to minimise and mitigate its impact on equipment, such as developing advanced materials and coatings that resist the dust.
Dr Ralston says that there are real opportunities for the resources sector to repurpose mining technology to accelerate developments in the space sector, and then in turn to use advances in space applications to benefit our traditional terrestrial sectors.
“The things you need to do to make equipment work in extremely harsh operational mining environments 24/7 under potentially explosive atmospheres – these are not unlike the same challenges that we encounter for space applications,” he says.
CSIRO’s Space Program is taking an integrated and sustainable approach, says Dr Clayfield – for example, ISRU is tapping into robotics and sensor expertise from Data61 scientists who recently landed a million-dollar prize in DARPA’s subterranean challenge.
“We have capabilities across Australia’s very large landmass, and we are networking our existing facilities in a useful way – from our robotics programs, to our Pawsey supercomputer centre,” she says.
Dr Clayfield says that the facility is already being used by university and industry partners.
“Our capability for remote operations will let us work with the industry and research organisations all over the country – and we’re excited to hear from organisations, small business and large, who would like to work with us.”